Sustainable Horticulture Pays Off

Todd Woodfield
Todd Woodfield

Abby Farms is a family owned nursery and tree farm located in the mid-Atlantic region of Maryland. The farm encompasses more than 350 acres of ball and burlap (B&B) trees, while producing a mixture of one-gallon to 25-gallon container plants, perennials, roses and grasses, along with trees and woody ornamental shrubs, of which we have approximately 350,000 at any given time.

Four years ago, we made the conscious effort and decision to change our production practices to a sustainable, non-chemical approach. To further clarify, we do not use any products that don’t meet the organic certification of our B&B product line, with the exception of glyphosate. In our container production, our two exceptions are synthetic fertilizer use and pre-emergence herbicides. Our long-term goals are aimed at reducing and ultimately eliminating our dependence on them.

In order to make this process successful, you need the full support of the owner and upper management. Managing a large-scale operation is difficult at times, and you must have dedicated people who are willing to work hard to achieve success.

Steps We Took Toward Holistic Production
The big question is, how did we do it? This type of change does not happen as easily as turning off the flow of chemicals. We started with product research (organic products) and matched our pest challenges and/or fungus problems to sustainable certified products that would help us reach our goals.

The second step was to identify what lures were available to use to reduce our pests, and we discovered a multitude of options, such as Japanese beetle lures, bagworm lures and peach or apple borer lures, just to name a few. These pheromone lures are really effective, and the technology is much more advanced than what we had several years ago.

The next challenge was to counteract the damage we were doing to the soil in the B&B field rows by using glyphosate to keep the weeds at bay. The University of Missouri completed a four-year study on the effects of glyphosate, and through this research it was noted that many nutrients are tied up or coagulated together with the repeated use of glyphosate.

At this point, we looked for products to correct or counteract this problem, and we settled on one that can be mixed with glyphosate and applied at the same time to save on labor. We use an enviro-mist sprayer to apply this mixture. The additional product moves the glyphosate into the leaf faster for a quicker kill, while increasing soil bacteria and friendly fungus populations.

Production Changes Require Education And Buy-In From Everyone Involved
The production department went through a huge education process when we started our sustainable farming process. In the beginning, the department consisted of me and one other employee, who had been experimenting with holistic horticulture for many years, but we were never both employed at a company that embraced this process until we joined Abby Farms. We had multiple meetings to sell this approach to the rest of the management team, while educating them on the practice and changes needed to make this work. Needless to say, some were very skeptical.

All plant material is soil- and tissue-tested at a lab twice a year, minimum, so we can keep up with any nutrient changes. For container stock, we will tissue-test it a third time if needed, since we are dealing with artificial media. In house, we test random foliage samples daily. This is one person’s job all growing season. This individual also tests, tracks and logs sap pH, potassium levels, Brix levels and chlorophyll levels, along with the lab soil and tissue reports. Through this process, the nutrient manager can approximate what is happening and what corrective measures need to take place.

The cost in dollars and cents the first year for our field trees was about the same as what it cost to purchase chemical products and synthetic fertilizer, because instead we purchased soil amendments like calcium, gypsum, potassium, copper and zinc. By doing so, we addressed the soil structure so we could feed the trees through the soil and rebalance it while building fungus and bacteria. We can see the difference!

The container products are very similar with component fertilizer sprays; we will still use synthetic fertilizers to meet the production schedules. The savings have showed up in the sequential years, and now we just tweak it a bit to produce a high-quality product at a lower cost. Additional benefits that exist include no chemical signs and daily posting schedules, no chemical log books and a much smaller organic storage room that does not require heating. The majority of products stored are nutritional component sprays that adjust the plant protein or sugar levels and/or make up nutrient shortages in the plant. The bulk storage is made up of household items that can be found in your kitchen that can be purchased in bulk from a restaurant supplier. These items can sterilize insect eggs, overload insect pancreas or break down exoskeletons, all components of death for insects, yet consumed by humans daily. Insect management is actually about how the plant tastes to the insect.

You will notice I do not get into the products to use or the value of sugar translocation to the roots, or the value of protein to reduce insects. You will need to learn this on your own — knowledge is power.

Sustainable or holistic horticulture is everywhere. Most of the companies I know that use this approach do not discuss it openly because a) it is cheaper and gives them a competitive pricing edge for their products and b) most people are doubters. They don’t understand it, so therefore, it can’t work. The real kicker is that every year, it gets easier and easier.


Leave a Reply

More From Greenhouse Grower's GROW...

April 20, 2018

Your Weekly Chance to Market the Positive Vibes That Flowers Bring

Each week between now and the end of the year, American Floral Endowment will post a new video promoting flowers.

Read More
Dual Income No Kids (DINK) Young Couple

April 10, 2018

Make Plans to Attend the NICH Annual Conference in Atlanta in June

Everyone in every aspect of consumer horticulture is invited to attend and help create a unified, strategic plan around industry-wide priorities.

Read More
2016 Massachusetts Horticultural Society Field Trials

March 31, 2018

Save the Date for the 2018 Northeast Greenhouse Conference

This year’s conference takes place Nov. 7-8, 2018, and offers growers a great opportunity to learn, share, and connect with other industry professionals.

Read More
Latest Stories

March 26, 2018

How Dickman Farms Used a New Event to Expand Its Custom…

Last fall, Dickman Farms hosted “Carve & Brew,” a new event in which young adults were able to carve a pumpkin, taste craft brews from two local microbreweries, and relax with friends and neighbors.

Read More

March 22, 2018

Why Your Efforts to Sell Plants Fall Short and What You…

It’s time to look at outside industries for ideas and inspiration on what we can do to operate more efficiently in today’s economy.

Read More

March 20, 2018

Seed Your Future Dinner Celebrates Focus on New, Young …

During a Seed Your Future Leadership Meeting Fundraiser dinner at Longwood Gardens, Pennsylvania's Ag Secretary thanked the Seed Your Future initiative for its efforts to create awareness of horticulture and careers in horticulture.

Read More

March 1, 2018

7 Ways You Can Control Your Business Destiny With Lawma…

As business owners and industry leaders, your job description should include being active and engaged in our political system.

Read More
Steve Garvey, Dallas Johnson Greenhouses

February 25, 2018

How Two Leading Greenhouse Growers Are Committed to Qua…

Greenhouse Grower recently asked its two most recent Head Grower Excellence in Quality award winners about the steps they take to improve plant quality. Here’s what they had to say.

Read More

February 21, 2018

Four Ways to Get Your Staff to Care About Quality

It can be a challenge to convince your employees to care as much as you do about your business and the quality of products you are providing. Here are four suggestions for making this happen.

Read More

January 22, 2018

Four Ways to Attract Employees With a New Approach to C…

AgBiome is a participative, self-managed organization where no one has a boss. Instead, employees self-assemble as teams around organizational issues that need to be tackled, and internal experts help drive important decisions.

Read More

December 27, 2017

How CareerUp Helps Young Professionals Level-Up

The mission of CareerUp is to equip young professionals with the skills to maximize their career potential.

Read More

December 26, 2017

Richard T. Meister Scholarship Winner Encourages Indust…

This year’s scholarship winner says young people need experiences that challenge them and allow for creativity and innovation.

Read More

December 21, 2017

Greenhouse Grower’s GROW Initiative: How You Made…

To create a competitive advantage, you must consistently experiment with and learn from new ideas. Greenhouse Grower’s GROW initiative provides you with cutting-edge ideas and actionable advice that results in greater profits in everyone’s pocket.

Read More

December 15, 2017

Your AFE Donations Will Be Matched Between Now and the …

Between now and December 1, any donations made to the American Floral Endowment will be matched up to $20,000.

Read More

December 8, 2017

HortScholars Program Now Accepting Applications for 201…

Do you know any college students currently in a horticulture-related program? This unique program gives them a chance to connect with industry leaders and make new connections at Cultivate.

Read More

December 5, 2017

GROW Summit 2017 Tackles Marketing and Business Managem…

This year’s think-tank style event brought together leaders from across the green industry to deliberate on topics such as disruptive marketing, cost accounting, and Millennials, to name a few.

Read More

November 27, 2017

Why It’s Important to Get to Know Consumers at th…

One way to learn about consumer behavior is to get boots on the ground and engage with them.

Read More

November 9, 2017

Dümmen Orange Throws Support Behind Seed Your Future In…

Dümmen Orange has announced it will pledge $450,000 over the next three years to Seed Your Future, the non-profit organization whose mission is to promote horticulture in the U.S. and inspire people to pursue careers working with plants.

Read More

November 1, 2017

Thanks to the 2018 GROW Sponsors

There are a number of industry organizations that help make Greenhouse Grower’s GROW Initiative a success.

Read More
Marshall Dirks, Proven Winners

October 28, 2017

5 Rules for Creating a Lifetime of Outdoor Garden Memor…

Many customers are time starved. Their most important asset is time, not money, so be realistic about the investment of both when they are buying plants.

Read More
Living Umbrellas

October 25, 2017

Why Living Umbrellas May Have a Bright Future

Sometimes innovation strikes by chance. Such was the case with David Tilley, developer of the “Living Umbrella.”

Read More